Like last year, Kyrie Irving's defense has been a somewhat major topic of discussion, both by Cavaliers' fans and by the coaching staff. Just five days ago, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal quoted Coach Byron Scott saying this:
"[Defense] is the only thing that's going to separate him," Scott said. "Every person I talk to basketball-wise, they know how gifted he is offensively. But the one word that keeps coming out of their mouths is he has to get better on the defensive end and I think he knows that. That's what separates Chris Paul. He's extremely good on the other end of the floor. Rondo is the same way. Derrick Rose, before he got hurt, was the same way."
So while the defense continues to be a work in progress according to Coach Scott, let's at least see how the numbers stack up compared to last year for the second-year point guard.
Last season, Irving was pretty much a sieve defensively by any metric or objective observer. According to Synergy, Irving allowed 1.03 points-per-possession overall, which ranked him at 447th in their database. There were no positives to even take away from the specific situations with at least 50 possessions: be it isolation, in the pick-and-roll against ball-handlers, or in spot-up situations, Irving was simply bad by the numbers. Not only that, but the defense showed a marked improvement when Irving stepped off the floor, according to 82games.com. The Cavs went from giving up 112.6 points-per-48 minutes with him on the floor to 107.6 with him off of it.
Of course, some of his defensive dreadfulness was due to the team surrounding him. Antawn Jamison has been (how to put this nicely...) a complete and total disgrace defensively for about three years now. Tristan Thompson was okay defensively, but was still only a rookie. Others such as Ryan Hollins and Anthony Parker are not known for their defensive prowess. But having said that, some of the defensive deficiencies could fairly be placed on Irving's shoulders. He did, after all, allow opposing point guards to accumulate a 19.0 PER against him with a .559 eFG%.
In 2012-13, there has been some marked improvement in Irving's defense statistically. His overall points-per-possession number according to Synergy is down to 0.83. His most marked improvement there has been in isolation situations, where he is only allowing 0.53 points-per-possession in comparison to 0.99 last season. That mark is good for 15th in the NBA.
However, his biggest development has been the degree to which he's able to force turnovers. So far, he's forced turnovers on 13.8% (up from 11.6% last season) of his opponents' possessions, which is a slightly above-average number within Synergy's database among point guards. Additionally, 82games.com has the Cavaliers averaging 16 turnovers with him on the floor per 48 minutes, and only 14 with him off the floor. So Irving's presence on the floor defensively does at least seem to lead to more turnovers, which helps to mitigate the fact that opponents are shooting nearly 40% against him this season.
Even the team defense hasn't seen a marked improvement with him off the floor this year, which may sound like a backhanded compliment at first, but is really meant with the best intentions. The Cavaliers have given up 110.8 points-per-48-minutes with him on the floor, and 110.0 with him off the floor. He's improved his opponents' PER to 18.1, and opponents' eFG% to .496.
Basically, the conclusion we can draw from all of this is that Irving has certainly improved defensively, but probably not enough to be considered an average defender. One thing that should be mentioned (as it won't show up in the stats) is that the Cavaliers have hidden him better this season. By occasionally having Alonzo Gee guard opposing point guards, it gives Irving a little bit of a rest defensively and shields him from more difficult opposing match ups. That's one reason why his above-average overall defensive stats should be taken with a grain of salt. However, let's discuss specific situations that he's been put into this year. Having already mentioned the isolation aspect of his game, I'll look at the other two situations he's most often put in defensively: the pick-and-roll and against spot-up shooters.
Truthfully, I'm not entirely sure what to make of him in pick-and-roll situations. Even though he doesn't seem particularly adept at fighting through screens to get back to his man, pick-and-roll defense is so reliant on having mobile big men who can take up space and then have the wherewithal to rotate back. The Cavs don't really have that with Tyler Zeller, Luke Walton and Marreese Speights roaming the paint. It's going to be really difficult to see how much Irving has improved this facet of his defense until we actually see him with some defensively conscious big men. So I'm giving this an incomplete grade until then.
Where Irving has certainly struggled is against spot-up shooters. From what I've seen (especially over the past few games), it's not a matter of defensive effort there - normally you can point to that as a reason why spot-up shooters perform well against someone. It simply seems to be a situation where he gets caught ball watching too often. I've edited together a set of clips that articulate this:
Kyrie Ball-Watching (via Sam Vecenie)
As you can see, Irving's biggest issue is that he just forgets to get up on his man tight while watching the ball, and he just ends up too far away to make a tangible impact on shooters. He always gives effort while closing out once they have the ball; he just isn't close enough. If he can stop that tendency to just watch the ball, I think we could be looking at a situation where he drastically improves.
My thought here is that I don't think Kyrie is far away from being a good defender. He's already solid in one-on-one situations. Plus, he's asked to do so much offensively that it's really tough to ask him to do much more for this team. However, if he can simply step up his focus a little bit more on this side of the ball (not even his intensity), I think we could see an even better Kyrie Irving sooner rather than later.